The Beauty and the Beastly Smells of the Fez Medina


(NOTE: A more complete version of this with photographs can be found at :


There is mystery and music and intrigue for me in the names Fez and Marrakech. They sound exotic and foreign and romantic. Maybe even a touch dangerous or threatening.

I feel some excitement at the thought of seeing, feeling, hearing, even tasting the experience of locales that have only been names until now.

Both of these Moroccan cities have been immortalized in popular songs of my era:

• “The Fez” by Steely Dan in the 1970’s which is actually using fez as a slang term for condom,

• and Crosby, Stills, and Nash 1969 song “Marrakech Express“, written by Graham Nash after a 1966 train ride from Casablanca to Marrakech.

And so I arrive in Fez with a mission – to acquire a “fez”, the round red hat with the flat top that you’ll see Shriners wearing in parades and festivals.

The first morning in Fez – our guide and driver Redouane and Fouad meet us early at our modern hotel and we start with a couple of quick stops high above the massive white and tan-coloured city to get an overview.

The next visit is at a local pottery school. There, a young worker convinces me to try my hand at molding and kneading the stiff, grey clay, laid out in a big wet lump on the floor, next to the artists spinning their wheels producing tagine pots. The skin of my palms becomes greyer than the hair on my head.

By the time we finish there, I walk out with a beautifully painted tagine pot in my possession. I figure that this is just part of my early preparation for a tagine cooking class we will be taking a couple of days later in Marrakech.

And now, here we are in the entryway to the Fez Medina (walled city) that transports a person back in time into a remarkable marketplace that has been the lifeblood for dozens upon dozens of generations of Moroccans. There’s a touch of Alice Through the Looking Glass entering the hole, the tunnel that may or may not let us out of its grip.

This morning as our group prepares to enter the medina, Redouane, once again dressed in his cloak-like djillaba, introduces us to a young fellow. Aladdin, an unemployed, yet well-dressed local man, will accompany us through the labyrinth to ensure that none of us becomes lost in the narrow, twisted alleys.

Within seconds of leaving the open square and entering the medina, an acrid, pungent smell hits.
We are surrounded by hustling, rushing people pushing their way through cramped, narrow corridors. There are scattered bits of overhead roofing some of the time, although the passages are so narrow, it feels as if we are indoors the entire time.

The first market stalls we encounter are laden with animal carcasses, mostly lamb, sheep and beef, and some wicker baskets filled to the brim with live shrimp or tai-chi slow moving snails in their shells. There are dozens of snail baskets stacked back deep into the shops. These are obviously a popular local delicacy, and something we’ll see a lot of little stalls selling later, hot and prepared in the souk of Marrakech.

The pinched passageway rises up and down and bends around corners, the floor sometimes smooth, but more often bumpy and cracked. Every 10 or 15 seconds a push cart or scraggled donkey heavily laden with food or fabric or animal hides – cement even – approaches from behind and the Arabic word “belek” is shouted…”move aside”.

There is constant movement and interaction between the sellers and the men, women, and children who live their lives inside this encapsulated city.

Small emaciated cats sit amusedly or run hither and thither, collecting any tiny stray scraps of meat or white bits of fat dropped to the ground by merchants. In the Muslim world, cats are considered clean and can be touched and held, whereas dogs are believed contaminated, and after touching one, it is important to wash and cleanse oneself, almost as if you were entering a mosque.

Some of the shops appear to be long ago dug into the dirt hillside, dark and primitive, while next to them, others have lovely ceramic entryways and bright lights. Still stranger are the doorways that open into a modern looking bank or a restaurant, a mosque, or even the world’s first university.

This is a place of huge diversity, with a whole lot of curiosity; for example, when we entered a leather tannery factory.

At the dark, claustrophobic entryway, a small, old, bearded man hands each of us a branch of fresh, leafy mint. Nice smell, OK.

We climb two flights of cramped wooden stairs where we are greeted by a middle-aged semi-toothless fellow who speaks English with a southern twang, who ends his “s” words with “sh”…”Welcome to Fesh”.

It’s hard not to stare at his yellow-mottled, peg teeth as he tells us he once lived in Cold Lake, Alberta, flowering us with compliments about Canada. Then he launches the tour of the tannery factory inside the Fez Medina.

Leading us one floor higher, we walk into a sizable, dull wood-floored room with a long opening on the far side looking out over the Medina. When we approach the edge to peer out, it’s as if a scene from Dicken’s industrial age is laid out before us.

Far below is a huge square filled with perhaps a hundred round, concrete vats, each maybe 6 or 8 feet across looking like small hot tubs. They’re filled to the top with dye liquids of varying colours.

Dozens of grizzled men work around and inside them. Some are carrying heavy loads of raw, untreated hides that they toss into the “baths”.

Others are swimming in the vats up to their waist in dye water, mixing the hides to take on the stain: the yellow, the brown, the black, the red and many more. All to make the coats and purses and leather briefcases we find in our houses somewhere in the world. Some of the men walk about with legs tinted the same colour as the coats we admire later.

Immediately, it’s obvious why we were handed the mint. The stench is overwhelmingly nauseating in the way it burns into your nostrils and lungs. Holding the mint to your nose helps to lessen but not obliterate the rotting, putrid smell.

There’s a constant flow of hides entering and leaving the area; the tan or white hides coming in flung over the shoulder by the dozen, and dripping wet, coloured hides carried away for the next stage in the process.

After observing the trip back in time for a few long moments, we’re taken the standard tourist route through the many displays and showrooms of all of the leather products: coats, handbags, valises, suitcases, belts.

Sydney, one of our Canadian co-travellers shows an interest in a handbag, if it’s not too expensive.

An hour later and after intense negotiations that could have bought and sold a major Canadian corporation, Sydney sheds $300 on a handbag and a red leather jacket, bargained down from the $700 starting point. Maureen was brought in to the negotiations partway through to lend some supportive, female strength, and then later, Sydney’s husband John was dragged in to approve the final purchase.

Tired, dehydrated and hungry, we all shuffle off for lunch, stumbling along the snake-like passages and then abruptly swinging right through a doorway. Down some rickety stairs, a high ceiling-ed chamber opens up before us – the room is filled with diners settled at round, wooden tables surrounded by benches lined with bulging, over-stuffed cushions.

It is dimly lit, and had it been filled with smoke, we might have thought we had entered a den of iniquity from Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.

Our group settles in and soon has a table filled with multiple plates of finely chopped Moroccan salads, followed closely by a chicken tagine mixed with our first sampling of couscous. No alcohol is served here in the midst of the Muslim surrounds, but lots of hot, sweet mint tea washes down the spicy dishes. A final course of fresh bananas and mandarin oranges leaves us recuperated and refreshed for further medina meanderings.

Getting out of the restaurant is as difficult as finding our way through the rest of the medina.

A few of our small group are held up by the other 3 of us who take a wrong set of stairs and begin climbing upwards, and then more upwards, attempting to find an exit. “Funny, I don’t remember passing this office room when we came in here.”

Finally, a kind server of the restaurant escorts us few lost sheep to the correct staircase that leads us back to the twisted paths of the actual medina. We carry on visiting other alleys and shops, and small factories until our feet are sore from the ups and downs and all arounds.

Like the 19th hole of a golf course, or the sports bar after the hockey or football game, our group returns to the hotel where we gather later for dinner and relive the day that has stimulated all of our senses with the sight, sound, touch, taste, and yes, especially, smells, of life behind the walls of the medina in Fez, Morocco.

In the next blog post, we’ll take you through the Moroccan countryside and to the exciting city of Marrakesh and its Souk (market), a tagine cooking class, and a visit to a Hammam (traditional Moroccan public bath). You won’t want to miss it!

Play It Again Sam … Casablanca to Fez

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(NOTE: A more complete version of this with photographs can be found at :


The Moroccan policeman has a smile on his face that looks pasted-on friendly but it’s pretty clear to us all that there’s serious intent as he reaches forward and touches my arm over and over.

Even our ever-smiling guide Redouane (“Red-One”) has lost the happy light in his eyes. But that’s not important just yet … let’s go back just a bit.


RABAT, Morocco

It’s like a symphony performed with the lights turned out.

The sounds float on the cool pre-dawn air into our hotel room through the window left open to allow fresh air that won’t come from the non-functioning A/C unit.

First, the sweetly lyrical but haunting chant crying out through the loudspeaker that calls the Muslim faithful to the first of their 5 times daily prayer.

Then a pleasant woman’s voice emanates from the train station across the street reciting a list in Arabic, French (the 2 main languages spoken in northern Morocco, Berber is spoken more in the south), and English, of destinations for the next train arrival.

Soon after, the squealing sound of a train’s wheels incite dog songs to begin the baying chorus of their ancestors.

Finally, a child’s quiet cries intrude through the background to end the symphony.

This is how the day started in this Muslim city just a bit north of Casablanca in the Monday morning darkness.


Breakfast in the white table-clothed hotel restaurant is filled with a gaggle of brown-skinned, mustachioed and tuxedoed Moroccan male servers hustling here and there and yet serving very few guests. It’s clearly mostly busy work, but they’re very good at giving it a realistic feel of useful activity.

The serving tables are replete with large platters of just-made crepes and steaming French toast, all manner of fruit, eggs, salad vegetables, and finally, tall spindled serving trays of… shall we say…dry enough to choke a camel, almond-infused sweet goods.

The night before, at a different table in the same restaurant, all of us 5 Canadian travelers-on-tour brought out our tourism six shooters.

In a game of oneupmanship, one by one we fired off an impressive-to-us list of previous travels and exotic adventures. When one of us finished, the next began and raised the ante. China versus Nepal versus Galapagos versus Iceland and so on.

It’s not a contest I enjoy, but my competitive side wouldn’t let me escape and be quiet. Embarrassed at myself, I fired back with my travel credentials. Take that … bang bang!

After arriving on a late night flight from Madrid, the first tour day had been a whirlwind of exploring sprawling Casablanca (population 4 million) with the main Hassan II Mosque and its enormous 200-metre high minaret, the highest in the Islamic world. We removed our shoes to enter with respect and took in the enormity of the marble and cedar shrine to Allah.

The dark, cloudy day was accompanied by large Atlantic Ocean waves smashing into the beach front behind the mosque, giving the scene a roar for the ear and an ominous look for the eye.

Leaving Casablanca, we began the driving loop through northern Morocco’s varied history and landscapes and flavours.


The Road from Rabat to Fez

On the smaller Moroccan highways, there are police roadblocks each half hour to hour along the way.

We approached the very first of our journey shortly after a lunch break of delicious chicken tagine (moroccan stew), and little triangle-shaped pastries that mixed a savoury inside (chicken, ground almonds, and egg) with a sugar-dusted outside, in the old university town of Meknes. I’ll be looking for a recipe for those pastries!

Two sour-faced and officious cops waved our 7-seater van to the side of the two-lane paved highway. It was a stretch of road surrounded by lush green fields of fava beans, gentle, verdant slopes rising on both sides.

We had passed alongside huge wide swaths of olive orchards in their silvery grey hues, although the trees were empty of olives for now. On the other hand, the almond trees had been in full pink blossomy splendour and from time to time we had seen bitter orange trees with large ripe round fruit hanging from their branches.

It was as lush an agricultural area as I had ever experienced.

It was also as lush a police hustle as I had ever encountered.

In the driver’s seat of our van sat Fouad, a slender, mid-twenties fellow with a slight resemblance to a young Barack Obama, a big infectious smile and a happy demeanor.

In the passenger seat was Redouane, our handsome, thirty-two year old guide for the journey.

We five Canuck journeyers in the back, sat quietly eating local mandarin oranges, and watched with interest as the discussion went along in Arabic between the officer at the window and our two guides. Eventually both Redouane and Fouad were asked to get out of the van and join the police at their vehicle behind.

Five minutes passed and then 10 as the discussion went on with no resolution; at times it looked like there was some heat in the words of one of the cops and once in Redouane’s face.

But I wasn’t satisfied with watching and waiting as Redouane and Fouad argued and cajoled the police officers. Despite an ongoing discussion with our fellows, the police managed to multi-task and continue to pull over other truck and van drivers, apparently fleecing a few hundred Moroccan Dirhams from some, the equivalent of maybe 30 or 40 Canadian dollars.

Finally, foolishly … stupidly … impulsively … I stuck my head out of the van door, aiming my camera towards the excitement occurring between the police and Redouane.

I snapped a photo of the back-and-forth 15 metres away, pleased that I had been so discrete, and no, I didn’t use a flash.

Climbing into the back seat area, I reached over the back of the seat and took a second shot through the rear window of the van.

I sat back in my van seat, proud of my photojournalism skills.

But, unfortunately, I HAD been caught “red-camera”-ed.

I could hear the crunch crunch crunch of approaching footsteps on the soft shoulder gravel and then the head police guy’s face peered in through the open van door. Redouane looked worried behind his shoulder. The police officer smiled, but it wasn’t a happy smile.

Redouane spoke over the cop’s shoulder:

“You must erase the picture you just took and show the policeman while you’re doing it.”

The cop reached in towards me and touched my arm while I turned on the camera. I was way too timid to resist and insist on freedom of expression or whatever might show true courage.

Everyone else in the van sat in stony silence.

I’ve never deleted a photo on this Canon SLR camera and so Maureen and I fumbled over and over, pushing this button, then that, then another. Nothing seemed to bring up an erase screen.

The cop continued looking at me and touching my arm each time it was clear I hadn’t erased anything. Then he pulled out a small flashlight and held the light on the camera’s back.

Quickly, I spotted a garbage can icon – YES!! This had to be it.

I touched the button beside the icon and the word ERASE popped up on the screen.

The beads of sweat on my forehead began to cool and when the button was pressed, the cop could see the photo disappear. I hoped that he wouldn’t look at the screen and notice that there was a second photo of the scene. But he was too skilled at this scenario and immediately he signaled to me that I should erase the next photo as well. I hit the garbage can icon and it was … gone.

The cop looked up at me, smiled, touched my arm, then said in broken English, “Enjoy your stay in Morocco”. OK…

Redouane refused to pay a cash bribe to the cops, insisting on a written fine so that there would be a record of his “crime”. The travel company would pay the cost of the official fine later for the burnt out taillight that couldn’t possibly have been seen by the cops prior to pulling us over.


Off we continued; we passed through a dozen more road blocks in the next day or so without incident – just a collective holding of breath and nervous laughs each time by the 7 inhabitants of our van.

Darkness descended as we finally pulled into Fez for the night. The evening air was cooling to about 6 or 7 C when we hopped out of the van and checked into a beautiful 5 storey Barcelo-branded hotel and prepared for a visit to the famed enormous Fez Medina (old walled city) the following morning.

The delights of Fez and Marrakesh will be the next stops on this blog’s journey. More surprises to come!!

Call Me Maybe … Nah, Call Me Mr. Lucky


Luck Be a Lady… A Stroke of Luck … Good Luck… Luck of the Irish … Outta Luck … Better Luck Next Time … Lotsa Luck … Lucky Dog … Lucky at Cards, Unlucky in Love … Beginner’s Luck … Don’t Push Your Luck …


I believe in luck: how else can you explain the success of those you dislike?”

Jean Cocteau


I don’t buy lottery tickets.

I don’t go to casinos and sit at the blackjack table for hours even though you can almost smell the rich scent of cash wafting through the air of the casino.


I don’t visit bingo halls (except as a fundraising volunteer), even though – until a couple of years ago- you can almost smell the rich smoky tobacco flow wafting through the air of the chamber.

I don’t creep into narrow-doored massage parlours or “Cat Houses” knowing I’ll get lucky just by plunking a sweaty wad of cash or my charge card on the counter.

I didn’t get to choose my parents. I didn’t get to choose where I was born. I didn’t get to choose when I was born.

It all comes down to LUCK.

luck |lək|:

success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions

luck pictures

And yet, I’ve always rejected luck as a factor in my life. And I think I’m about half right.

For if luck doesn’t truly exist, then what words would you use to describe how I could be born at this amazingly wealthy, relatively peaceful time in history – in a tranquil locale such as Canada?

Luck is a two-headed beast.

It does exist, although maybe not in the time and place where most of us would like.

One head of the luck beast lies in our genes, our history, and in the air and atmosphere that surrounds us every day.

Luck is a prenatal event that transforms slowly as we jettison from between our Mommy’s legs.

We emerge into the light with the potential of both good and bad before us: the genes that determine a portion of what we will become, and a place in the world that will make our rise either easy or hard.

Once that first breath has been absorbed and we’ve screamed our first “WTF”, luck gradually melts and blends into the ether of a netherworld that drifts away like vanishing water vapour clouds in the hazy background of our lives.

Or maybe luck is like Santa Claus; a wonderful, red-suited, generous benefactor that gives us dreams and limitless possibilities.

By the time we reach our adulthood, the misty vision of Santa or luck is now just a faint but happy memory. We reflect on it with lament but realistic thought tells us that the true source of the gifts beneath the tree is us.

Yes Virginia, once we’re catapulted from the womb and move forward in years, we create our own luck.

I’ve often lacked patience with those who blame the world and its denizens for their fate. When the wind blows a tree over my house, I can utter the words, “Tough Luck”, but then I need to make things right, right?

When I lose a job, I can (and will) cry for a day and then find a way to make my “luck” return.

If I wait around for luck to bestow its gifts, I’ll pass my life in anxious anticipation of something out of my control.

Instead, I’ll continue to choose to make my luck and if it turns out not as well as I had hoped… Well, that’s a life lesson that I need to take and transform for my future gain.

And with any luck, that transformation won’t be happening in a casino or at a lottery ticket counter!

  • “Go and wake up your luck.”Persian Proverb.


PS. My friends, I’m off playing and learning in Morocco right now so the next blog post or two will be “travel blogs”. Come travel the northern part of Africa with me and see what mischief I can create. With “luck”, we’ll uncover some fun and funny happenings!!

Double DD’s … A Sweet Slice of Heaven Lies in Perfection?


Meg Ryan sliced through my heart …

Meg-Ryan before after

She didn’t have to. She had a choice. And I’m left in a soggy heap asking why?

She must have known she had me enthralled even before she went all gastronomically orgasmic in When Harry Met Sally.

And now here she is looking like someone from the Real Housewives of Hollywood — pumped and plumped lips, cheek implants, brow lift and who knows what else.

She’s a 10 who hit the math subtraction sign of her plastic surgeon on her iPhone and sadly, regrettably, ended up a 5.

It kills me when, like a fluffy puppy, you’re cute and adorable and intelligent in a beautiful little bundle, and then you ruin a recipe approaching perfection by adding a cup of salt — there’s no going back.

Every time Meg cocked her perky little head, flipped a few strands of her blond ringlets and coyly smiled at me in Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail, I felt a gentleman’s stirring which meant I couldn’t stand up for 5 minutes.

But Meg? What blurred your senses making you think you needed a Dexter-style slicing and plumping?  Let Dolly Parton and Pamela Anderson and Bruce Jenner have the implants and injections and tucks.

Gold Medalist Decathlete Bruce Jenner

Decathlete Bruce Jenner … Olympic Gold turns to Plastic …

Now me – at my objective best – I have physical faults, lots of ’em.

How do I perceive such? Let me count the ways:

  • My nose is too wide.
  • My hair is thinning and I have a bald spot.
  • I’m a bit overweight.
  • I have wrinkles criss-crossing my wrinkles.
  • I have sagging skin on my jaw line, the start of jowls.
  • Secretly, I fear I’ll never be a folk-singer star.

OK, that last one isn’t a real physical fault, but it just goes to show you the depth of my insecurities.

It’s sad that my outsides are sliding and sagging down a Sochi Olympic slope. I’ve watched my juvenile bloom drain and melt away year after year in the bathroom mirror. Where’s Dorian Gray when I need him?

But you know, I’m at an age and a stage where technology could help me retain a semblance of my youth, if I choose.

And so I ask myself…

Would I take on a bit of plastic surgery?


Plastic surgery has become a part of our western culture — like it or not. It has insidiously seeped through our pores like the creams and lotions we massage into our dermis to magically remove the wrinkles.

We pretend that advertising and peer pressure doesn’t affect us, and then we go buy the latest iPhone.

When we see enough people getting BOTOX injections or calf implants or beautiful voluptuous breasts, we begin to believe that it must be OK. Once everyone in your office has had lip plumping and liposuction, don’t YOU begin to feel like the odd one in the group?

Let’s not beat ourselves up about this.

It’s not bad – alright, maybe a bit sad – but it’s who we are. It’s the nature of humans to be a part of a culture, a society … to belong.

You can't handle the boobs!!

You can’t handle the truth …these Babies are REAL!

I can tell myself that I’m superior and above such frivolous thoughts. But am I really? 

What used to be a perk of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous out there, has, like maybe owning a Porsche or a 150″ theatre-style TV, become a possibility for Mr. or Ms. Anyone with a few extra dollars of expendable income.

Remember Bill Clinton’s successful campaign slogan from 1992 that helped him defeat George Bush Sr.?:

It’s the economy, stupid.


Well, plastic surgery should have its own slogan:

It’s our insecurities, stupid.


I have insecurities, you have insecurities, we all have insecurities.

And so we place ourselves under the knife or needle to fix on the outside what we can’t or won’t repair on the inside.

The inside stuff is just too difficult, and often emotionally painful to deal with. If we can fix the outer problems, maybe our critical inner voices will melt away, right?

Or maybe its just that we struggle with respecting or accepting the value of aging and therefore reject the mantle of wisdom.


I have a friend Julia, who recently had some work done to her face. Twice actually.

Julia is an attractive, slender, divorced woman in her early 60’s.

Unlike Meg and so many others who have become possible substitutes on The Walking Dead, she looks really good after her facial manipulations.

When I talk with her, I see a perky youthfulness that gives her a freshness that had ever so slightly waned as she entered her fifties and then her early 60’s. The changes have been subtle but restrained enough to see that there wasn’t an attempt to regain a face of a 30 year-old.

It makes her feel good about herself and I can’t criticize her or judge her. I guess I only hope she didn’t do it as “Whore Lure” to attract the male of the species.


I feel badly Meg. You didn’t need to change for me. You were good and nice in so many ways already. And I’m really glad you didn’t have breast augmentation, despite your modest endowment in the pectoral area.

I don’t like the look of fake boobs. And honestly, large real boobs don’t really call out to this Man on the Fringe.

But I digress. Have you noticed that I’ve skillfully avoided answering the question I posed earlier?:

Would I take on a bit of plastic surgery?


My hesitant answer?

Forgive Me Father for I have sinned!


  • I admit that a portion of my fitness activity is partly an attempt to retain a semblance of youth without taking a blade or needle to the temple that is my body.
  • I’ve had my some amalgam added to a couple of my teeth to remove the appearance of gaps.
  • I’ve had my eyes surgically-lasered so that I don’t need to wear glasses.

By a matter of degree and nuance, I’ve already joined Meg Ryan and so many others desperately seeking perfection.

I won’t be running to a cosmetic surgeon any day soon, but, in a few years, if my Levis begin to sag badly in the rear — or heaven forbid — I should succumb to one of those “male enlargement” e-mails … well, who knows what sin I’m capable of!!!

Butt implant

Before There Was 50 Shades … There Was My Man John …

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When I sat in eccentric old Mr. Batchelor’s Grade 9 English class, I dreamed of my own personal Fifty Shades of Grey scenario with about half of the girls in the classroom.

The short mini-skirts of the ’70’s era, revealing cream-coloured, porcelain-smooth teenage thigh skin were a “blurred lines” invitation to a 14 year-old male pubescent mind.

The scene outside my Grade 9 classroom...

A typical scene outside my Grade 9 classroom…

I was hormonally primed and more than ready to give up elementary schoolyard swings and slides and pounce onto a new sex-charged high school playground.

Yep, I was a squeaky-voiced early version of Christian Grey. My last name “Green”, akin to Grey, was an obvious prescient sensual sign of great things to come.

I was possessed of a totally literary kind of schoolboy perspective with high ideals and best of intentions … NOT!!

I’m pretty sure that not a single one of my imaginary classmates-harem gave this short, cherub-cheeked boy in the front left desk any thoughts close to what I was living in my preoccupied haze.

I was giftwrapped in my brain’s illusion, and there was no one that would take the wrapping off and make it real.

But … aside from my adolescent fantasy world, I enjoyed the class for some of the academic reasons too.


As a decent student, I relished reading stories and literature that drew me in and took me to worlds of which I knew nothing.

But, to take just one example, reading Shakespeare left me in a a muddled whirlwind of incomprehension and confusion. Good God, what did any of his Renaissance-era Olde English words mean?

I loved it when we travelled on field trips to Stratford (Ontario, Canada … not that OTHER Stratford) to watch the plays acted live, because mercifully, I could eke out an understanding of the story. Live theatre was a pretty reasonable substitute for Coles Notes.

The actions showed me what the words never had.

Plus there was lots of drama, fights, sword-play, and naughty 50 Shades-style bawdy skirmishing.

It was great fun watching the serious-minded Shakespearean actors jettison streams of airborne saliva all over each other in their emphatic acting roles. Strange how live acting never appealed to me as a life choice after seeing one of those plays.

Members of the company in Kiss Me, Kate , 2010. Photography by Erin Samuell.


Fortunately, I wasn’t a total literary loss — there was one author that we young learners read at various times throughout high school that was understandable for me.

He told empathetic stories with struggling, heartfelt characters like justice-seeking Tom Joad and dim-witted Lennie Small.

He created a world of real life drama that took possession over me, carrying me into a time warp that dramatized my parents’ and grandparents’ era…the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

Who was this wonder author that penetrated the hormonally-charged mind of a teenage boy?

John Steinbeck


The Grapes of Wrath. Of Mice and Men. East of Eden. Cannery Row.

Lennie and George...Of Mice and Men... so bittersweet.

Lennie and George…Of Mice and Men… so bittersweet.

I’ve told you in earlier blog posts that I’m not a great fan of Hemingway’s sparse writing.

On the other hand, I loved Steinbeck. I loved Steinbeck then, the way you might love Stephen King or Suzanne Collins or J.K. Rowling today.

By his words, you could taste the bone-dry prairie dust in your mouth. You could feel your heart breaking and tears rising when Lennie panics and accidentally snaps the neck of the boss farmer’s beautiful wife — Oh Lennie, why did you have to go and do that?

But I read his stories with different eyes in a different era from today. Society was a different place then, just as it is in every generation and time.

We look at the past world and see the words and actions of others as if they were occurring today. We judge Christopher Columbus by who we are now, not who he was in 1492.

Steinbeck chronicled an era, not unlike TV’s Mad Men, where women sat stoically in the background and waited for decisions to be made on their behalf.

Like obedient cattle, women were chattel, or sometimes Lady Chatterley, but never an equal co-driver or co-decision maker.

In those high school days, few of us ever saw his characters as being sexist or misogynistic.

Women were just people. 2nd Class people maybe, but it was what it was.


Chapter 1 of The Grapes of Wrath had this telling scene of prairie folk fearfully surveying their destroyed livelihoods:

Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often.

And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained.

The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break. The children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes.

Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust.

After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break.

Then they asked, What’ll we do? And the men replied, I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the watching children knew it was all right. 

Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.”

It’s a beautifully written passage of anguish and despair, finishing off with insight and hope.

But was this some kind of innocent early non-sexualized precursor to 50 Shades where women were meek and submissive – a place where the dominant male asserted his rightful supremacy?

Could you write a book today with lines like this?

Maybe, but I think that Steinbeck would more likely have this cheerless man and woman standing side-by-side, pondering the difficult choices to be made … together … equals. The man would want to know that she wouldn’t break as much as she wouldn’t want him to falter.

I still admire and enjoy Steinbeck’s stories, but I interpret and absorb the words differently.

The grey matter in this Green man’s head has been altered and shifted by time and experience. When I read a book (or view a movie) now that I took in as a younger person, I see it from the who and the where that I am now.

In a blog post I wrote about a year and a half ago, I told of my shock and dismay that 5o Shades of Grey had become such a popular phenomenon among women of all ages. It didn’t make sense to me that women would embrace a character like Anastasia Steele who would allow herself to be victimized and dominated so willfully.

It surprises the hell out of me that a society that clamours for gender equality, also enigmatically and breathlessly clamours for stories of female victimhood and inequality.

Who knows, perhaps in 20 years I’ll re-read 50 Shades and the words and scenes will look different to my older eyes just as Steinbeck’s stories and characters have changed for me over time.


I’ll still yell at Anastasia not to sign that Dominant/Submissive contract with Christian Grey, and turn and run in the opposite direction.

50 Shades of Bad